Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Iceland Theory of the Lewis Chessmen

Where were the famous Lewis chessmen carved? Art historians usually assume, in the absence of other evidence, that an object was made close to where it was found. But while these chessmen found on Lewis are universally known as "the Lewis chessmen," few experts today have championed the Isle of Lewis as the home of an ivory carver of such sophistication. They consider medieval Lewis too "marginal" and "out of the way" to produce great art.

As I explain in my book Ivory Vikings, the same prejudice applies to medieval Iceland.

Frederic Madden of the British Museum published the first scholarly account of the chessmen in 1832. At the end of this nearly 100-page treatise he confidently concludes that they were made in Iceland.

This theory was accepted until 1874, when the Norwegian chess historian Antonius Van der Linde belittled Madden's suggestion that Iceland could produce anything approaching the sophistication of the Lewis chessmen. Icelanders, he scoffed, were too backward to even play chess.

Since then, although chess historians like Willard Fiske and H.J.R. Murray thought the chessmen came from Iceland, art historians have favored the Norway (or Trondheim) theory. This theory was strengthened between 1965 and 1999 by a series of studies of Romanesque sculpture by Norwegian art historians and archaeologists. But mostly the Norway theory has been strengthened by repetition—what one scholar has called "the snowball effect."

In 2010 David Caldwell of the National Museum of Scotland and his colleagues wrote that "the limited evidence favors Trondheim." Their main argument was that "most scholars would at present expect to locate the manufacture of such pieces in a town or large trading center. The craftsmen who made such prestigious items were, perhaps, more likely to thrive in such a setting."

When civil engineer and chess aficionado Gudmundur Thorarinsson posted his discussion of the Iceland theory on the internet, he was attacked. Said one critic, "The content is literally filled with faults and oversights. … This whole argument seems far-fetched."

Yet as I traced Gudmundur's path through libraries, cathedrals, and museums, from Reykjavik to Skalholt, from Edinburgh to Trondheim, Lund, and Lewis, I found very few "faults and oversights." Fewer, in fact, than I found exploring the Norwegian theory, which seems mostly to be based on that grand medieval concept of authority.

Building on Madden and Murray, Gudmundur added the insights of scholars who wrote in Icelandic and whose voices had not entered the international debate on the origins of the Lewis chessmen, such as art historian Bera Nordal, archaeologist Kristjan Eldjarn and his colleagues, and historians Helgi Gudmundsson and Helgi Thorlaksson.

Before Gudmundur wrote his paper, no one discussing the Lewis chessmen connected them with the extraordinarily rich 12th-century bishopric at Skalholt, its wooden church larger than any in Norway. No one mentioned the art-loving Bishop Pall Jonsson, who surrounded himself with the finest artists in the land, four of whom are named in his saga: Amundi the Smith, Atli the Scribe, Thorstein the Shrine-Smith, and Margret the Adroit, who was the most skillful ivory carver in Iceland.

Did Margret the Adroit carve the Lewis chessmen under a commission from Bishop Pall? Unless proof of an ivory workshop is found at Skalholt, we cannot say yes or no. But "the limited evidence," I believe, places Iceland on equal footing with Trondheim as the site of their creation. Someone else will need to argue the case for Lewis.

(This story is based on an interview with the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið, published on September 4.)

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or hear me speak about the book at these events:

September 19: Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vermont at 7:00 p.m.

September 21: Scandinavia House, 58 Park Avenue, New York at 6:30 p.m.

October 15: The Fiske Icelandic Collection at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY at 4:30 p.m.

October 17: The Sixth Annual Iceland Affair, Winchester Center, CT, time to be announced.

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